Garden of Gethsemane
While lying wounded on a World War I battlefield, Felix Lucero made a vow to dedicate his life, if he lived, to the creation of religious statues. He kept the vow and his life-size sculptures of the Last Supper and other subjects can be seen at the northeast corner of W. Congress St. and Bonita Ave., just west of I-10, open daily, free.
You can't miss this small peak just west of downtown. In earlier days soldiers used it as a lookout point for hostile Indians, which explains its original name, Sentinel Peak. The giant "A" dates from October 23, 1915, when the local university football team beat Pomona College by a score of 7-3; jubilant sports fans immediately headed out to paint the "A." The painting became a tradition, and every year freshmen whitewash the giant letter—and themselves—for all to see.
To enjoy the panorama from the top of the peak, drive west 0.6 mile on Congress Street to just before it ends, then turn left on Cuesta, which becomes Sentinel Peak Road. The road loops around the summit; there's a large parking area on the west side, from which the summit is a short walk up.
International Wildlife Museum
More than 400 kinds of mounted wildlife from all over the world illustrate the wondrous diversity of life (4800 W. Gates Pass Rd., 520/629-0100, www.thewildlifemuseum.org, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., to 6 p.m. Sat.-Sun., $7 adults, $5.50 students 13-17/military/seniors 62+, $2.50 children 6-12). Many creatures appear in naturalistic habitat dioramas. Informative exhibits tell about animal behavior, evolution, and how conservation programs work. The insect collection contains dazzling butterflies, bizarre beetles, and camouflaged stick insects. You'll see rare birds of paradise from Papua New Guinea and the extinct passenger pigeon from the United States. Big game from Africa and Asia will impress you with their size. Wild sheep and goats from many lands pose on the steep slopes of a 30-foot mountain. Arizona creatures "inhabit" both nocturnal and daytime settings. And finally, daunting recreations of an Irish elk and a woolly mammoth show prehistoric life.
A theater screens wildlife movies on the hour. Kids can feel horns, furs, teeth, and skulls and try the interactive computers and other projects. The gift shop will interest small folks too. A snack bar is open most days. From I-10 or downtown Tucson, head west five miles on Speedway Boulevard and look for the large fort-like building on your right. This section of road is fine for large vehicles and trailers.
Tucson Mountain Park
Rugged mountains in this park just eight miles west of town cover over 17,000 acres. Attractions include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson Studios, picnic areas, hiking trails, and Gilbert Ray Campground. Saguaro National Park provides additional scenic backcountry just to the north. The campground and area attractions may have a map of the park. Unless you're driving a big rig, the best route in is Gates Pass Road, reached from Tucson by driving west on Speedway Boulevard. Gates Pass has a great view and is a fine place to watch the sunset. RVs over 25 feet or vehicles with trailers should take Ajo Way and Kinney Road from I-19 Exit 99.
Old Tucson Studios
The West has been won many, many times at Old Tucson (12 miles west of Tucson in Tucson Mountain Park, 520/883-0100, www.oldtucson.com, open at 10 a.m. daily, with closing times depending on the season, $15.79 adults, $14.20 seniors and Pima County residents, $9.98 children ages 4-11)! This famous movie location re-creates Tucson of the 1860s with weathered adobe or frontier buildings, board sidewalks, and dusty streets. It began back in 1939 as the setting for the Columbia Pictures film Arizona. Since then, more than 350 movies and video projects have been filmed here, including Dirty Dingus Magee, Rio Lobo, Death of a Gunfighter, and Young Guns II. Directors have shot such well-known TV shows as Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie here as well.
Today, adults and kids enjoy a wide variety of shows and rides. A miniature train chugs around Old Tucson on a narrated excursion, providing a good introduction. Stunt people wearing period clothing stage blazing gunfights at several locations. Step into the Grand Palace Saloon for uproarious entertainment. Rosa's plays movie clips of past cowboy action filmed here. The Iron Door Mine, stagecoach, carousel, old-time car, and trail rides provide additional excitement. You'll find food at several eateries, a sweet shop, and an ice cream parlor. You may bring a picnic (no alcohol). Pets on leash are welcome. Drive west on Speedway Boulevard/Gates Pass Road (not suited for large rigs) or take Ajo Way and Kinney Road. Admission includes all activities and shows except for gold panning, which is $1 extra.
You can also visit Mescal, a late 1800's movie set 40 miles southeast of Tucson, on some days; call Old Tucson or check its website for details.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
This world-famous living museum (14 miles west of downtown in Tucson Mountain Park, 520/883-2702, www.desertmuseum.org, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily Oct.-Feb. and 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily March-Sept., $12 adults, $4 ages 6-12, rates drop May-Oct. to $9 adult, $2 ages 6-12) gives you a look into the life of animals and plants native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, and the Gulf of California region. Mountain lions, bighorn sheep, javelinas, and over 300 other types of animals as well as 1,200 species of plants live in nearly natural surroundings. The superb setting looks across the Avra Valley to Baboquivari Peak (7,730 feet), sacred to the O'odham tribe, and Kitt Peak (6,875 feet), site of important astronomical observatories.
You could begin with a quick stop at the orientation area to see the day's event schedule, tour times, and what flowers are in bloom. The path into the Earth Sciences section leads underground through a realistic limestone cave, then opens up to a gallery with exhibits that illustrate the formation of the Earth and how it has changed up to the present time. A mineral room displays exquisite specimens. Back outside, you can visit the realms of the mountain lion, black bear, and Mexican wolf. Cat Canyon has several elusive species, which you should be able to spot from one of the vantage points above and below. A detour down the half-mile Desert Loop Trail winds past the homes of javelina and coyote. The Riparian Corridor contains a desert oasis with pools inhabited by frolicking otters, beavers, and endangered fish, all of which you can observe through underwater panels. Nearby, desert bighorn sheep stand majestically in their mountainside habitat. Try to spot the birds in the walk-in aviaries—not as easy as you'd expect, as many desert birds blend in well with their surroundings. The Life Underground exhibit takes you below the surface to observe wildlife in their burrows. Other exhibits let you meet rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, scorpions, and other desert dwellers face to face. You'll find desert flora well represented and labeled throughout the museum grounds. Side paths lead to cactus and pollination gardens.
Bring a sun hat and good walking shoes—there's a lot to see. Animals tend to more active in the morning, which is a good time to visit. You'll have many opportunities to meet docents and see their presentations. Try to take in the Raptor Free Flight program (Nov.-April), when trainers demonstrate behavior and flying skills of raptors such as owls and hawks.
An art gallery offers visiting shows. The excellent gift shop sells Native American arts, natural history books, and Southwestern crafts. At lunch time you have a choice of self-serve or fine dining restaurants, both with indoor and patio tables. A coffee bar and a snack bar provide refreshment too. The museum has a picnic area near the southwest side of the parking lot, and you'll see signs for two picnic areas just to the east in Tucson Mountain Park.
On "Summer Saturdays," the museum stays open until 9 or 10 p.m. so visitors can enjoy the evenings. Take Speedway Boulevard west across Gates Pass or, if you have a large RV or trailer-rig, come via Ajo Way and Kinney Road. No pets permitted.
Saguaro National Park West
The Tucson Mountains District of Saguaro National Park contains vigorous stands of saguaro cactus, as well as an abundance of other desert life. Stop at the Red Hills Visitor Center (520/733-5158, www.nps.gov/sagu, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily) to view exhibits and a video about the Sonoran Desert. Staff answer questions and provide handouts on the park and its hiking trails. A bookstore has a fine selection of regional and natural history titles. Naturalists offer walks and talks daily Oct.-April. To get here from Tucson, continue two miles past the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. If coming from Phoenix, take I-10 Avra Valley Road Exit 242 and follow signs 13 miles.
The five-mile Bajada Loop Drive winds through scenic countryside with two picnic areas and several trailheads along the way; it's a graded dirt road with a one-way section. The drive and other unpaved roads in the park close from sunset to 6 a.m. The visitor center sells an interpretive guide.
The park has about 40 miles of trails with many interesting loop possibilities. A map available at the visitor center shows trails, trailheads, and distances. The short paved Cactus Garden Trail beside the visitor center introduces the unique saguaro and other plants of the Sonoran Desert. Javelina Wash Trail makes a short loop behind the visitor center. Desert Discovery Nature Trail interprets desert ecology, plants, and wildlife on an easy paved half-mile loop; the trailhead is 0.9 mile northwest of the visitor center. Valley View Overlook Trail begins 0.2 mile past the start of the one-way section of the Bajada Loop Drive and climbs to a fine panorama; signs tell of plant and animal life on the 0.8 mile roundtrip. Farther along the loop drive, you can take a short detour to Signal Hill picnic area, then climb the easy half-mile roundtrip Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trail. You'll see intriguing spirals and other rock art from the trail and at the summit. Interpretive signs tell of the peoples who have come through this land. Desert varnish wears off easily, so it's important not to touch the petroglyphs or let kids climb on the boulders.
Hikers climb the summit of Wasson Peak (elev. 4,687 feet), the highest in the Tucson Mountains, from several trailheads. King Canyon Trail provides the shortest way to the top in 7 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of about 1,900 feet. It begins across Kinney Road from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and goes northeast in a gradual 0.9-mile climb to Mam-a-Gah picnic area; the path steepens to a moderate grade for the next 1.4 miles to a ridge with views of the Catalinas, then switchbacks 0.9 mile to the Hugh Norris Trail, on which you turn right 0.3 mile to the summit. Coming down, you can make a loop by following the Hugh Norris Trail 1.9 miles past the King Canyon Trail junction, down a set of switchbacks, and along a ridge, left one mile down the Sendero Esperanza Trail to the workings of the abandoned Gould Mine, then right 1.1 miles on the Gould Mine Trail back to the King Canyon Trailhead.
Ironwood Forest National Monument
This beautiful area of the Sonoran Desert northwest of Tucson will appeal to nature lovers who shun blacktop and other developments. You won't find any marked trails, visitor center, or campgrounds here. The monument's 129,000 acres protects bighorn sheep, saguaro, ironwood, and other desert life. You can find many cross-country hiking and some four-wheeling adventures. Little has been published on this relatively new monument, which is administered by the BLM office in Tucson (520/258-7200, www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/natmon/ironwood.html).
High-clearance vehicles work best on the main roads; you'll need 4WD on some side roads. Three routes lead into the monument, so you can make a loop. From Tucson and the south, take paved Avra Valley Road (I-10 Exit 242) 19.9 miles, then turn left on unpaved Silverbell Road before the entrance to a large mine. On the northeast side of the monument, a road from Marana (I-10 Exit 236) passes north of aptly named Ragged Top (elev. 3,907 ft.), whose lower slopes make a fine area to explore; bighorn sheep inhabit the steep upper reaches. Farther north, you can take Sasco Road (I-10 Red Rock Exit 226); pavement ends after 3.6 miles and you'll see ruins of Sasco ghost town in another 3.2 miles. All three roads meet near Ragged Top at a junction 13 miles from Avra Valley Road, 17 miles from Marana, and 13 miles from Red Rock.
West Silver Bell Mountains offer another fine place to explore; turn west at the unsigned four-way junction on Silverbell Road, 5.4 miles south of the three-way junction or 7.5 miles from the Avra Valley Road turnoff. You'll know you're on the correct road as Silverbell Cemetery should appear after 100 yards; it's one of the few remnants of Silverbell and Silver Bell ghost towns. Curve left just beyond the cemetery and take a right turn after 0.5 miles; this road makes a loop of about two miles (keep left at road forks); you can explore side roads along the way or head off on cross-country hikes.
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